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Caring for cranes: Annual Sandhill Crane count a labor of love

Polk County Coordinator Nan Riegel gets a preliminary count from volunteers at Cafe Wren following Saturday’s count. (Photo by Tom Lindfors) 1 / 3
Volunteers exchange stories at Cafe Wren in Luck following Saturday morning’s count. (Photo by Tom Lindfors)2 / 3
A pair of Sandhill Cranes make their way across a marsh in Spring Meadow, a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service property in southern Polk county. (Photo by Tom Lindfors)3 / 3

You may have seen them. Shadows in the early morning light. Sometimes in pairs, sometimes alone. Some sitting in cars pulled over on the side of the road, windows down, others donning rain gear along the side of a marsh, or skirting the edge of a field strewn with remnants from last year’s corn crop, binoculars to the eye scanning the dimly lit landscape for a shape out of place, a tall leggy grey phantom sporting a rusty red-feathered cap. They seek the owners of a demonstrative call that many of us have come to associate with the welcome arrival of spring each year, the Sandhill Crane.

On Saturday, April 12, between the 5:30 and 7:30 a.m., thousands of volunteer bird lovers and folks just generally fond of nature, scoured the countryside, county by county across six midwestern states from Wisconsin to Indiana counting cranes as part of the International Crane Foundation’s Annual Midwest Crane Count.

Locally, in Polk County, the count is coordinated by Amery resident and veteran counter Nan Riegel.

“Being a coordinator, you’ve got to be motivated, you’ve got to be willing to do research and you need to be passionate about the opportunity,” Riegel said.

Sandhill Cranes are thought to have existed practically unchanged for 10 million years making them the oldest known surviving bird species. Over the last decade, populations in the temperate regions of the U.S. and Canada have been expanding. That expansion is the result of increasing access to wetlands for nesting and agricultural lands suitable for foraging. The crane foundation has been working with farmers to develop a new technique to treat corn seeds with a deterrent before seeds are planted to discourage cranes from eating the seed and prompting them to feed on other available food in the field or forage in other areas in an effort to maintain a positive relationship between farmers and cranes.

Half of Saturday’s 30 crane counters met at Cafe Wren in Luck to exchange stories from their early morning excursions and share their findings with Riegel, providing her with a preview of this year’s numbers. A count like this relies on consistency, so regardless of what kind of weather Mother Nature provides, volunteers count the same areas at the same time of day and month each year.

“Weather and seasons really do affect this particular day. If we had a two-week range, it would give us a better average,” Riegel said.

Riegel also appreciates that seeing cranes really completes the experience for volunteers; access to familiar nearby sites also makes participation more enjoyable. To that end, she lobbied to add sites suggested by volunteers in addition to the sites specified for monitoring by the foundation.

“Seeing cranes is the payoff. It’s also one of the reasons I pushed to get more viable sites approved so people’s experiences would be reinforced and they would love to come back. That is something I was able to do.

“Seeing the joy that people experience, to hear them say, ‘I just loved this morning,’ and to know that they were awake at 5 asking, ‘where’s my coffee?’ I have a lot of repeaters, folks that have done this from the beginning, and that’s very gratifying,” Riegel said.

Riegel and the foundation provide plenty of informal educational tools to help volunteers understand crane behavior to increase their odds of seeing birds. But from the stories shared at the Wren, for most volunteers it’s about more than just counting cranes. There’s a sense of camaraderie, of being a part of something bigger than yourself and not just in the sense of a regional exercise. It’s about realizing that you too are a part of this ever-changing landscape but with one distinct advantage: a conscience and capacity for maintaining and protecting all the resources that make this landscape so memorable, even at 5 a.m.